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York City: Let us regulate recovery homes better

Sean Philip Cotter

To stay in one of Julie Hess' 11 Keep It Green drug- and alcohol-recovery homes, you have to stay clean, and they test you to make sure you're on the straight and narrow.

House President Jennifer Young, of York City, cleans dishes in her recovery home on Pennsylvania Avenue in York, Tuesday, May 3, 2016. Young, a recovering alcoholic, is at the home as she works through her 12-step program and works on living a healthy lifestyle. Dawn J. Sagert  photo

You have to take part in some sort of 12-step program, going to 90 meetings in 90 days.

You can't be doing anything against the law; if you do, the staff overseeing the homes will sniff it out, and then you'll be out of the home, said Hess, a recovering addict herself.

If recovering addicts are able to stay, they will have about 10 other housemates in the same situation — people trying to stay clean.

"They kind of operate as a unit," she said.

Pennsylvania's Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs believes private recovery houses such as Hess' can play an important role in the recovery process for that reason, according to Jason Snyder, the department's policy and communications director.

But there's no official count of how many drug and alcohol recovery homes are in York City, let alone in the state. No state agency keeps track, and there's no mechanism for providing oversight, so long as the building is up to code and no one there is charged with any crimes.

House bill: There's a bill before the House Professional Licensure Committee of the state Legislature that supporters hope would begin to change that, creating a voluntary certification program for recovery houses, also called sober houses, that follow the policies a board would prescribe.

The bill, HB 1884, is co-sponsored by state Rep. Kevin Schreiber, D-York City, who hopes it can weed out the small percentage of providers who might be turning a blind eye to illegal activity or taking advantage of their vulnerable clients.

Trishya Bouse, originally from Towanda in Bradford County, works to charge her phone in her bedroom at a recovery home on Pennsylvania Avenue in York, Tuesday, May 3, 2016. Bouse, a recovering drug addict who favored heroin and bath salts, is at the home as she works through her 12-step program and on living a healthy lifestyle. Eventually, Bouse would like to move to Florida where her two young children are currently living with her mother. Dawn J. Sagert  photo

"The vast majority are doing a very important and integral service," he said. "The proverbial bad apples are ruining it for everyone."

Introduced by state Rep. Tina M. Davis, D-Bucks County, the bill defines a recovery house as a form of group housing that has "a peer-supported, alcohol-free and drug-free living environment." It's a form of privately run transitional housing that costs money to live in and often requires anti-addiction measures such as drug tests and the attendance of a program to that effect. These are not to be confused with in-patient drug and alcohol treatment centers, which offer services such as therapy or medical treatment, which require licenses; there are 22 of those in York County.

If this bill were to make it out of committee and then pass in its current form, recovery houses wouldn't have to get certified to keep operating. Sure, there would be benefits to becoming certified, proponents say — the certified homes would be listed as such prominently online, likely making them more attractive to clients, and probation officers would recommend certified houses — but there's nothing other than an invisible hand of the market stopping unregulated homes from continuing to run how they want.

City supports: Recently, York City, which estimates it contains about 80 recovery homes, threw its weight behind the bill. The city administration sent assistant solicitor Jason Sabol to testify in front of the state House Democratic Policy Committee in April on behalf of Mayor Kim Bracey and the city in favor of this type of bill. He said the city "strongly" supports it, according to a copy of the testimony he gave.

Jason Sabol

"Generally, I think it’s a great start," Sabol told The York Dispatch.

But most of his testimony sought to push it further: He told the committee the city wanted the certification program to be mandatory rather than voluntary.

"Recovery houses can play a positive role in tackling the heroin problem, but only if there is oversight and regulation to integrate them into the larger rehabilitation and recovery system," Sabol testified.

Authorities have called the issue of expanding heroin use in York County an epidemic — 66 people died of heroin-related overdoses in 2015, up from 62 in 2014. That's far more than ever happened in any previous year, according to the York County Coroner's Office; in 2013, 17 people died of heroin-related overdoses.

Naloxone more widely available

Sabol also testified that the city wants the ability to levy local licensing fees on the homes.

"This fee would compensate our already struggling local governments with the cost of having an inspector inspect the property and maintain a current master inventory," he testified.

Owners: Hess said she supports the idea behind the bill.

"I think it’s a fantastic idea," she said. "The good homes will absolutely sign up and do it."

She said she would seek certification if the bill were to pass.

Dave Dunkel, who runs the Sees the Day recovery homes in the York area, also supported the idea of the bill and said he'd seek certification.

"I'm all for something like that ... if it’s not going to put an undue burden on the people running them," said Dunkel, who operates eight recovery houses.

He said he doesn't know the details of the current bill, but he recalls a previous iteration of it from a couple of years ago. He said his residents have to undergo random drug and alcohol tests, and there's staff getting to each house every week to check in on what's going on.

Home owner Dave Dunkel, left, talks with residents Jennifer Young, center, of York City, and Trishya Bouse, of Towanda, in their recovery home on Pennsylvania Avenue in York, Tuesday, May 3, 2016. Dunkel offers to bring Bouse a "Heroin Cravings Index" of helpful information he has compiled in hopes of building an APP at some point in the future. Dawn J. Sagert  photo

Local governments: Schreiber said he believes this bill to be a good first step, but he also hopes further legislation gives more control to municipalities. The state representative used to be York City's economic development director and said in that position he often used to hear complaints against recovery houses. He agrees with Sabol that local governments should be able to require some sort of licensing of the local recovery houses and should be able to inspect them beyond the normal codes inspections for single-family dwellings, which is all they have to pass now.

"I would certainly love to get to the point where local governments would have some sort of oversight," he said.

The most concerted effort in the state to have any kind of list comes from the Pennsylvania Alliance of Recovery Residences. But that group lists only those it has certified. In the entire state, it has 61 listed, which is less than the amount estimated to be in York City alone. PARR has certified three of the 80-or-so York City homes, according to the association's website.

The site says PARR certifies houses that get in touch with the organization and show that their policies and procedures conform to those recommended by the National Alliance for Recovery Residences.

House President Jennifer Young, of York City, talks to fellow resident Trishya Bouse, not shown, as she puts away dishes in her recovery home on Pennsylvania Avenue in York, Tuesday, May 3, 2016. "The five of us that are here--we became a family. We're all close," says Young.  Dawn J. Sagert  photo

Convictions: Fred Way, the executive director of the association, said his organization is in favor of a voluntary certification process by the state, but he had some concerns about certain parts of the bill.

His main one was regarding regulations on who can run recovery houses. The bill would prohibit anyone who's been convicted of or pleaded to misdemeanor or felony charges from running one. Way said that's going to put many out of business — often, people running the homes are recovering addicts themselves and therefore might have a criminal history. He believes that shouldn't rule them out of trying to help people in the situation they were in.

The bill does provide an opportunity for potential owners to apply for exemptions to that prohibition.

In order to be certified under this current bill, recovery homes would have to pay a fee of up to $100 and submit a full list of policies to the state recovery residence board this bill would create. The board would be composed of several state appointees from agencies such as the Department of Health as well as a member of law enforcement and someone representing recovery homes, according to the bill's text.

The board would be able to approve and deny applications and could decertify any home that doesn't follow guidelines.

— Reach Sean Cotter or on Twitter at@SPCotterYD.